One of Pogo Possum’s best swamp buddies, Robert Yarrington, my friend and father-in-law, passed this weekend. Bob had been reading Walt Kelly’s masterpiece in all its comic book and strip forms from the time “Pogo and Albert” first appeared in Dell comics years before that small world was revived and expanded as the Pogo strip in 1948. He amassed a small library of the familiar old Pogo reprints over the years that he bequeathed to me when his grew unable to enjoy them, and we both worked through the recent Fantagraphics complete reprint together. Bob’s steel trap memory for the books and comic strips he read even decades ago always left me aghast and humbled. I barely recall characters and endings I read last week let alone when I was 20. One of my joys over the last decade has been bringing Bob new reprints of Pogo, Little Orphan Annie, Prince Valiant (one of his particular faves) and some of the pulps he loved like Erle Stanley Garner’s A.A. Fair series. His eyes widened as his memory kicked in and I knew he was about to recite some piece of minutiae from a strip or potboiler he had read six decades ago. It was a treat to see someone who lived and relished pop culture so deeply. Comics helped him learn to read, and he repaid the favor with lifetime devotion to the medium.
Bob’s Pogo collection remains enshrined on its own shelf in the Panels and Prose Library.
Here are just a few Pogo passages to remember Bob I think he would like.
Bob’s liberal politics were well-aligned with Kelly’s regular bouts with right-wing excess. Pogo’s most famous poke at the right was his brilliant send-up of Joe McCarthy’s thuggishness in 1953. This sequence from May, 1953 is especially timeless. Swap in a more recent faux populist, proto-fascist and you have a strip that’s as relevant today as it was 69 years ago.
Bob was especially fond of the Pogo songbook and Kelly’s artfully fractured versions of familiar standards. The joke at the core of “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie” is that none of us remembers the full lyrics to Christmas Carols. Kelly’s crew, however, have trouble remembering their own wrong version of the song. And so in Okefenokee Swamp, during every year’s run-up to Christmas, Kelly comes at the same joke in different ways.
Bob had excellent taste in comics. He was thrilled that Fantagraphics was reprinting one of his youthful favorites, Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby. Starting in 1942, this wild tale of a boy, Barnaby, and his cagey, cigar-smoking, scallawag Fairy Godfather Mr. O’Malley is a singular American classic Bob pushed me to appreciate. I didn’t warm to it immediately but have come to appreciate this wry take on parenting, childhood and modern American life.
In his last days with us, and after he could enjoy the stream of volumes we sent him from the Library, he did enjoy the company of our English Setter Nicky, who is a bit of a cartoon himself.
Among Walt Kelly’s many charms was that he never spoke down to his audience. He treated them as knowing co-conspirators in his satirical journey.